Rexx Life Raj’s “War” is the answer to Marvin Gaye’s “Whats Going On”
Rexx Life Raj’s “War” reminds us that Black music is rooted in the cultural tradition of West African griots. His 2019 release and subsequent re-release during the 2020 summer Uprisings speaks to the heart of the revolution taking place. For so many Black people we have been in the war for years, but we are just waking up the rest of the world as life has slowed due to Covid. Raj delivers a masterful performance on the track and it is sure to be considered a lasting contribution in the history of Black protest music.
Historical Setting — Connection to the Continent
When studying the ancient West African civilizations like Ghana, Mali and Songhai it is easy to find some very similar cultural traditions to Black people globally. This is, of course, because of the close to 20 million Africans kidnapped and enslaved during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, roughly 40% came from the western coast of Africa. As we study these civilizations we begin to learn of the importance of salt and gold, we learn of Mansa Musa and his unfathomable wealth. As we begin to study Black people across the globe on a cultural level we can see some quick connections to these civilizations, with maybe the most obvious to spot, usually around our necks, wrist or in our mouth: gold. While gold might be the easiest to see I believe another tradition is more important and has sustained our people throughout our fight for freedom: griots. For those of us unfamiliar with this term I will refer you to the words of Lize Okoh, “Since the 13th century, when Griots originated from the West African Mande empire of Mali, they remain today as storytellers, musicians, praise singers and oral historians of their communities. Theirs is a service based on preserving the genealogies, historical narratives, and oral traditions of their people. And as such, have for centuries retold the history of the empire, thus keeping their history and traditions alive”(1). From kidnapped Africans singing their sorrows during the middle passage, Negro Spiritual’s like “Wade in the water” all the way up to Hip-Hop Icons like Tupac, Chuck D, NWA and Nipsey Hussle, our lyrical storytellers have been able to bring words to life over beats that flow from the heart and speak of our fight for freedom. Recently, Wale’s June release of “The Imperfect Storm”, continued the tradition of Black music speaking to our struggle and reminds us that music remains a cultural connection to the Continent.
Tracing modern Black music’s political roots, we often look at Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Going On”, released in May 1971, the album spoke so eloquently of the social struggles facing the nation. After Gaye’s brother returned from Vietnam, his stories of Nam tore apart Marvin’s heart. Marvin began to see the world radically different and this new perspective allowed him to create a classic. Gaye “decided to change everything about the way he worked. He produced himself — a radical move at Motown. He used multitracking to layer several lead vocals into a back and forth. His album became an interconnected suite, a gallery of songs reflecting the state of the union as Gaye saw it, from neglected ghettos to the thriving community churches, to the abused environment. It wasn’t jazz or pop. It wasn’t protest music in the strictest sense. It wasn’t pure gospel either, but it sure had that spirit”(2). In the last month, the burdensome weight of the fight for liberation has been front and center, and yet relatively few artists have been able to capture the moment. Wale’s album does a fantastic job of centering the album’s conversation on the uprisings on 2020 but there has been a song that has been stuck in my head this entire month, that I believe speaks to where the movement is at, although I must admit it was a song that has been in heavy rotation since its release, “War”(3) by Berkeley Super Hero Rexx Life Raj.
The whistles in the background instantly evoke the deep desire to sway your head from side to side before you hear a word. As soon as Raj’s voice comes through your speakers, his tone conveys a sense of quiet rage. The type of quiet rage I have kept inside my heart for as long as I can remember. “It’s a war outside, am I the only n*gga that…”… fill in that blank with whatever emotion fighting the day evokes: sees it, cares, is STILL fighting; all these feelings are authentic on any given day. Black folks have been in a constant state of war with the United States of America since the first Africans were kidnapped on the shores of West Africa and brought to a foreign land to be human capital. “War” stands out to me to follow in the Black musical tradition of art activism, and seems to almost directly answer Marvin Gaye’s question: “What’s going on”? Rexx Life Raj’s latest album Father Figure 3 was released in the beginning of November 2019, clearly before any of the recent uprisings, but that doesn’t stop it from speaking to the soul of this spring/summer’s uprisings. While Marvin was cautious: ‘father, we don’t need to escalate’, Raj sings with that quiet rage “acting like they don’t know, there’s a war outside”. This embodies the struggle so many Black folks across this country are feeling; that while the idea that Black Lives Matter has become a culturally acceptable slogan, the fight for Black lives and war for liberation might face it’s toughest battle yet. The war is far from over.
What’s Going On?
As the story has it “the initial idea for “What’s Going On” came to Four Tops member Obie Benson when he was in San Francisco in 1969.They had the Haight-Ashbury then, all the kids up there with the long hair and everything … The police was beating on the kids, but they wasn’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what was going on. ‘What is happening here?’ One question leads to another. ‘Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas?’ And so on’”(4). Gaye opens the song singing of mothers crying, as their children fall victim to the fate of the times; whether it be the Vietnam War, the white supremacist violence that claimed the lives of so many Black leaders(look at this list from Southern Poverty Law Center & they didnt even include Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Lil Bobby Hutton, etc) or to the violence of the communities that had been infiltrated with drugs and guns by COINTELPRO. Gaye has come to understand the violence targeted at Black people is playing out on multiple fronts and he is begging for peace. Gaye’s approach had been the natural response of so many folks during this time, trying to find a way to resolve the problem as simple and peacefully as possible, following in the footsteps of Dr.King.
In 2020 however, that patient and peaceful plea is played out. After George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor. After Kalief Browder, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. After Eric Garner, Joseph Mann, Stephon Clark, Tony Mcdade, Rakia Boyd. After ALL that, we stand on facts and research having built an understanding of America’s systems of oppression. We can see how America was able to utilize the War on Drugs to reform Jim Crow segregation into a new system of oppression for Black people. In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. He proclaimed, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive(Sharp, 1994)”(5). We know this “all-out offensive” was truly a War on Black communities which was confirmed by former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman (6). Slavery reformed into Jim Crow which reformed into “The War on Drugs” which leads to mass incarceration which is expanded on with the legislation such as mandatory minimums, 3 strikes and the 94 Crime Bill. You can’t beg your way to freedom, Assata taught me that.
“Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.” — Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (7)
Raj, like myself, is from the generation that lost so many people due to this War on Drugs. We lost fathers, uncles, cousins, big brothers, best friends, we lost mothers, aunties, sisters. We watched the destruction of families through drug use, through incarceration, through gun violence. As Marvin Gaye is begging for the answer, Raj is questioning why nobody else can see what is happening and you can hear the pain that sits in his soul as he describes the fight for Black lives. Raj sings “fakin’ ‘bout that street shit/ Go outside and get beat up/ He had no hands so he grabbed the heater/ That’s how life fly on this side”. The long-term effects of internalizing the anti-Black hatred we are forced to endure has created a wound within our community that needs desperate treatment through a building of “an undying love for our people” as Kwame Toure put it.
“Another n*gga shot dead on KTVU/Momma asked if I know him/While she watchin’ the evening news?/Even if I do what can n*ggas do?/Where can n*ggas hide? It’s a war outside”
Raj refuses to deny the reality of the fight we face; we face numerous enemies, therefore, we cannot escape the war(s) regardless of where we go. At this present moment in history, many people have come to understand the statement that Black Lives Matter as a call for equality due to the fact that police are killing Black men at more than 3 times the rates of white men. This is just a symptom I would argue however, again the symptoms of this pandemic (white supremacy) don’t just come in the form of police brutality, but range from mass incarceration, homelessness, racist legislation, lack of resources in Black and Brown communities, the academic achievement gap, the wealth gap disparity, and the list goes on. This war for Black Liberation attacks America at its core; for Black Liberation to come to fruition we have to see the white supremacist structures and institutions that hold up America be blown up and destroyed. The war is being waged, but as Raj points out, often without enough politically aware people to successfully fight the power structures of America. As the hook comes back after the first verse you can hear the desperation in Raj’s vocal inflections, “don’t know what to believe”, which has been the overwhelming feeling of Black folks left abandoned by the poverty pimps (coin-over-the culture Black “leaders”) and the so-called “friend” of the Black community. As the second verse begins Raj sets the stage, as bar after bar is filled with the infliction of Black people in america.
“We wasn’t born into a million dollars/I had n*ggas puttin’ P’s in a Honda/N*ggas that went to college as the first to go to college in they family/Celebrated like we won a grammy/Where I’m from a diploma make a n*gga happy”
The picture is being painted clear as ever, the wealth gap coupled with a lack of jobs puts a group of young people in a predicament where they choose to make a living through selling marijuana. The dichotomy of cannabis is the fact that so many Black and Brown people have been incarcerated, some even receiving life sentences for marijuana while whites are making themselves rich, again we know that capitalism thrives off of America’s anti-Blackness.
“Luckily I was one of the ones who made it/A lotta homies didn’t and then made me hate it/How was I so lucky? It’s a dice roll/I saw Devin in a casket with his eyes closed”
The trauma that encapsulates Black youth is palpable here. Survivor’s guilt, PTSD, these mental illnesses are a direct result of America’s white supremacy and cannot be overlooked. Majority of my closest friends and family lost their first friend around the age of 12 or 13 years old. The toll of losing a friend or family member to gun violence or drugs is tough regardless of age but at 12 and 13 years old we know that children are not adequately prepared for that. We know that at 12 and 13 we are still children, but then again Black children in America have rarely had the pleasure of being seen in relation to their biological age. Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald,Emmitt Till, and Michael Brown plus so many more were all 18 or under when murdered by police or other agents of white supremacy and did not get the benefit of the doubt when it came to their age. Majority of our children experience life changing trauma and survive and live with PTSD before they ever step foot on a high school campus. With this reality, our children face a world that is truly at war with their existence from birth. Raj pulls no punches while addressing the facts.
“You can’t duck the truth anytime you turn the lights off/(Fact’s), it’s ten times harder when you black”.
“Thought we only felt it on the state side/Chopped up it up Koji, he from London on the same vibe/Luckily over there they ain’t got guns so they can’t slide/Try to ban the guns over here there’d be a civil war/If you let em tell it to you everyone your enemy/Put the kid on Ritalin, he just got hella energy/Damn, uh, I know we’re all crazy, I see the truth (Yeah)/Just look at your IG and see the proof/Nothin’ really matters right now/Attention’s the new cash right now/And I’m watching people cash out, and crash out”
Raj casually brings in the discussion of global anti-Blackness through his conversation with Koji and takes a subtle yet precise jab at the role of the militarization of the police and unchecked power of white gun owning citizens here in America. Raj also reminds everyone of the divide and conquer tactics the structure utilizes to keep all oppressed people fighting amongst themselves while simultaneously waging a war against the people. As we get caught up in the flow of life and what these institutions tell us we miss the truth that will help to ensure our liberation. This can be as simple as what we focus on (social media image) to as complex as not fully comprehending the racism that is embedded into every institution of America, such as schools and medicine which disproportionately labels Black students as special needs and tends to medicate those children. As we, those who have picked up the mantle of freedom fighters, attempt to engage in this war, so many of our generational peers are addicted to the image we portray on social media, to the extent where we are trying to televise the revolution, but Gil Scott-Heron told yall The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
Black Lives Matter may be the popular thing to say but those of us who have been in this fight for liberation know the power of words, know the power of the tongue, know the force that is Black Power and so when I tell you we are at war and you need to educate yourself and embrace Black Power this is the first step in our process to organize and mobilize. Raj’s ability to capture the lived experience of Black youth should serve as a wake up call, his words resonate in a deep way that parallels freedom songs through generations. Rexx Life Raj has written and recorded the anthem for the uprising, the only question is when are you going to see the war outside your door?
Okoh, Lize. “What Is a Griot and Why Are They Important?” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 24 May 2018, theculturetrip.com/africa/mali/articles/what-is-a-griot-and-why-are-they-important/.
Moon, Tom. “The Story Of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.” NPR, NPR, 7 Aug. 2000, www.npr.org/2000/08/07/1080444/npr-100-whats-going-on.
Hutchinson, Lydia. “The Story Behind Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’” Performing Songwriter Ent., LLC, 8 Aug. 2017, performingsongwriter.com/marvin-gaye-whats-going-on/.
Stanford, E.D.G.E. The United States War on Drugs, web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/paradox/htele.html.
LoBianco, Tom. “Report: Nixon’s War on Drugs Targeted Black People.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press, 2020.